The Inside Rap on Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Like Vegemite, noise-canceling headphones attract a polarity of views.

Either they’re the best thing since sliced bread or a waste of money. Unfortunately, consumers’ facts aren’t always straight, but it’s still understandable buyers are disappointed when their new, $200 product seems less effective than their old, cheap earbuds.

The truth is, the efficacy of noise-canceling headphones depends on what you’re using them for. Are you hoping to drown out noisy babies and toddlers, or are you a traveler who can’t stand noisy potato chip eaters and the hum of vehicle engines? The headphones will cope differently with each sound type, depending on their specifications.

What’s the technology behind noise-canceling headphones?

Noise-canceling headphones rely on a combination of microphone technology and processors, delivering clever sound wave patterns to effectively counterattack incoming noise. This is known as an inverse wave. The microphone picks up the incoming sound pitch and its decibels, sending a signal to the processor or driver to create an inverse wave to cancel it out.

How effective are these headphones?

There is not yet a technology capable of canceling every incoming sound. While it’s realistic to expect good sound-cancelling headphones to kill the annoying drone of a ship’s engine or an aircraft’s hum, it’s not sensible to expect the cries of screaming babies and the shouts of vexed mothers to disappear too. It’s where you encounter lower-frequency, consistent sounds that you’ll notice a real difference.

Loud, sudden and variable noises won’t disappear, so if you’re hoping for library-quality peace and quiet, you’ll feel let down. Conversations, laughter, and screams will still assault your eardrums.

Why do manufacturers make such flawed products?

The products–at least, those from the mainstream brands–do what they claim. The main problem lies with unreasonable consumer expectations caused by misunderstanding the technological capabilities; there’s a marked need for more buyer education by the companies making and selling these products.

The marketing claims of manufacturers and retailers are confusing; everyone’s using different terminology. Is 10 percent noise penetration better than 90 percent noise reduction?

It’s the same thing, naturally, but just as some manufacturers make “95 percent fat-free yogurt” while others advocate “‘only 5 percent fat,” variations in wording lead consumers into a mixed-up muddle.

Some manufacturers also relate the efficacy of their product to the level of decibel reduction. It is common to see packs stating “45 dB reduction” or “15 dB reduction,” so headphones can appear ineffective to the novice consumer when reductions apply only to certain frequencies.

Headphones reducing sound by 45 decibels will only do so at this level of efficacy if encountering a low, bass frequency of about 160 Hz. Once you look at higher frequencies, the reduction achieved is markedly lower.

Things become yet more complicated when you realize every manufacturer’s headphones work to differing specifications; no one size fits all.

Why don’t manufacturers all work to the same specification?

Differences between brands and manufacturers are common in every area of consumer technology. That’s necessary so manufacturers can offer competitive new products; otherwise, every brand would be making the same things.

Since the science of noise cancellation is beyond the comprehension of most buyers, it seems no more puzzling than to say every washing machine’s “hot wash” runs at different temperatures!

Headphones sitting across the ear, rather than in the ear, are already at some disadvantage. Since they don’t have that snug fit, they allow more sound to pass.

Considering buying noise-canceling headphones?

To avoid disappointment, buyers should read the advertised performance numbers and remember they apply against a single, stated frequency only. A consumer looking for a broad-spectrum anti-noise solution is better off not buying this type of product; any high-end earbuds fitting well inside the ear should shield much external sound, especially when music is played too.

If you still want to invest in noise-canceling technology, shop knowledgeably by digesting other shoppers’ reviews and checking out that their applications are similar. Look for positive user reviews for headphones that block the sounds you don’t want. These headphones should suit you too.

Which noise-canceling earphones perform best in reviews?

Again, performance depends on the type of sound being blocked. However, the Bose QuietComfort range consistently comes out well in consumer reviews, even canceling some frequencies other manufacturers didn’t address.

As the Bose range is extensive, however, test a few different headsets and consider all their different product reviews before deciding on the best for your purposes. Beats by Dr. Dre also receives consistently good consumer feedback scores.

While the consumer reviews from unhappy customers can leave a bad impression of noise-canceling headphones per se, shoppers leaving such comments invariably started off expecting more than the product type could offer.

To be fair to this technology and its applications, read up on noise canceling and the different frequencies before making on a purchase. Once you’ve grasped the variations in noise types and have a clear idea of the sound frequency you need to address, try out the better-rated sets for that corresponding frequency. Via this methodical approach, you should soon find some headphones to suit your needs.